Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 20, 2008

The Hours (1998), by Michael Cunningham

hoursI really liked this book.  I’ve had it for ages, and was put off reading it by the utterly forgettable film with Maryl Streep, Julianne Moore and Nicole Kidman with a prosthetic nose.  (That’s all I remember about the film: Kidman’s nose and my puzzlement about it – why was it necessary?)


But it’s a fine book.  There are three stories: there’s Virginia Woolf, frantically trying to manage her sanity, plot her next book, stand up to the servants and get herself back to life in London; there’s Laura Brown, teetering on the brink of madness too, wanting to escape her dull suburban life, to stop being a wife and mother, to read her copy of Mrs Dalloway and maybe to take the sleeping tablets in the cupboard. Then there’s Clarissa, nicknamed Mrs Dalloway by Richard who is dying of AIDS. She is nicknamed Mrs D because long ago they shared a kiss – and even though he went away and lived a gay life with Louis, and she is in a lesbian relationship with Sally, they still love each other, mimicking the plot of Mrs Dalloway that Virginia Woolf is about to write as the story ends.

It’s a melancholy work, but it’s beautiful.  It’s far too long since I read Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway to identify more than the obvious references, but I liked the tense, intricate imagery as each woman lives intense moments in her life.  Often they step outside themselves, closely aware of their own feelings, motives, and actions as if they are watching themselves in a play or film.

We know Woolf’s tragic end from the outset, and yet she leaves the novel in triumph.  She has succeeded in persuading Leonard that she must go back to London.  She cannot bear the suburbs nor spend her life being bullied by Mrs Nelly’s solid British housekeeping.  She cannot stand her sister Vanessa’s fleeting visits, bursting into the dullness with chaotic life, exuberant children and a subversive kiss.  She knows that London will bring back her headaches, the voices and the madness, but it is about being fully alive, and about being in control, albeit fraught with dangers to her own life.

It is not until the last chapter, after Richard has thrown himself from the window sill to his death, that his identity is revealed.  He is Richie, Laura Brown’s clingy little son who traps her into domesticity.  She does eventually leave her husband, and attempts suicide.  Her daughter – from the pregnancy that stopped her taking too many pills – is dead in an accident; her ex-husband is dead from cancer; and now she has outlived her brilliant son who has won a prize by writing acerbic poetry about her.  It is neat, and subtle, this plot, and immensely sad.

Clarissa’s grief is profound, for she really loved Richard and wondered if they might perhaps have had a life together.  She has cared for him in his illness and is utterly unprepared for his surrender to death. The party she is giving to celebrate his success is the catalyst for the return of his voices – and yet he too triumphs because his death is his choice – he will not let AIDS torture him as he knows it must (because it affects his brain.)

The title seemed odd, but Clarissa reveals it: the hours are those of our lives – the rich, joyful, intense hours that make us fully alive.  They are interspersed, sparsely, with ordinary life, but they are there to be treasured, and lived to the full.  In a novel that begins and ends with death, and is suffused with thoughts of death, it is a note of hope that seems just right, and not sentimental at all.

This book is included in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.


  1. […] tanabata (Wuthering Heights)10. Irish ( The Bell Jar )11. Lisa Hill (The Plot Against America)12. Lisa Hill (The Hours)13. Lisa Hill (The Things They Carried)14. Wendy (The Robber […]


  2. […] The Hours by Michael Cunningham […]


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: